Matthew Dawson | Forrec Ltd., Toronto, Canada

Experimenting in heartland America: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is a new museum in Bentonville, Arkansas where residents and school children experience exceptional art not seen before in that part of the country. The Museum presents its collection of American art from colonial to contemporary in as a series of pavilions designed by Moshe Safdie that nestle around two creek-fed ponds. Sculpture trails link the natural landscape surrounding the Museum to downtown Bentonville.

With the Museum’s substantial endowment it has been able to offer free admission to all and to develop robust educational programming. In its first year the Museum has had a transformational impact on its community, seeing close to 600,000 visitors in a town of 45,000.

As a new Museum engaging with an audience newly exposed to art, this museum presented a rare opportunity to experiment with design of the art experience, untethered from institutional habits of thought and free from visitor expectations.

The presentation will explore what happens when a museum starts with a clean slate, and the attempts to break down barriers:

_between art and audience: by pursuing a ‘conversational’ rather than ‘interpreted’ approach to the experience

_between connoisseurship and general appeal: by committing to the principle that the Museum would match the interests and knowledge of art experts and novices alike

_between art and nature: by aiming for a ‘total design’ to the art experience, knitting art placement with the best moments in the architectural and landscape design

_between immersion and diversion: by imbedding the presentation of outstanding art within an environment designed for visitor welcome including nature trails, picnic areas, Reflection Areas between the galleries, a hands-on interactive gallery, architecture and food.